The Fundamental Turn is a key concept in understanding the way competitive metagames take shape. The term, coined by Hall-of-Famer Zvi Mowshowitz here, can be broken down into two elements:

  • If you are the beatdown in a matchup, the Fundamental Turn is the turn where you win the game.
  • If you are the control in a matchup, the Fundamental Turn is the turn where your “deck’s strategy begins to work” and you start to overcome an early deficit.

In the earliest days of Pauper the overall Fundamental Turn (FT) was turn 4. The fourth turn was when the beatdown decks of the day—Stompy and Goblins—could consistently win and the control decks could set up their defenses. Mono-Blue Control had Spire Golem with Counterspell back up, and Mono-Black Control could cast Tendrils of Corruption to stabilize before taking over a game. The FT of 4 did not last for long as decks like Storm Combo and Infect, and Cloudpost strategies pushed it closer and closer to turn 3. In fact, looking at just about every card on the banned list, each one has pushed the overall FT of the format lower.

This is not to say that the ideal FT of Pauper should be turn 4, but rather that it serves as a decent baseline. It is not so fast that creature beatdown decks are unbeatable or so slow that control decks are guaranteed to have the time to set up. Looking at Pauper right now, it is very close to having an average Fundamental Turn of 4, but the devil is of course in the details.

Take Burn. Currently the clock of the format, the deck can easily win on the fourth turn of a game. While that may be the reality, I think the FT of Burn is closer to 3. Given the density of 3-damage spells thanks to Skewer the Critics, Burn is far more likely to have a lethal amount of damage in hand by the third turn, which means that unless the opponent can gain enough life the game is effectively over.

Burn

VampireGarlicPizza, 5-0

18 Mountain
4 Ghitu Lavarunner
4 Thermo-Alchemist
4 Chain Lightning
4 Lava Spike
4 Rift Bolt
4 Skewer the Critics
4 Fireblast
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Searing Blaze
2 Shard Volley
4 Curse of the Pierced Heart

Sideboard
2 Electrickery
2 Flaring Pain
2 Keldon Marauders
4 Molten Rain
3 Pyroblast
2 Smash to Smithereens

The metagame can adjust. Since Burn had a few breakout weeks we have seen more copies of Lone Missionary and Aven Riftwatcher. These, combined with the near ubiquity of Prismatic Strands, help to keep Burn in check. Still, the deck can be blazingly fast and forces decks to have proper interaction early.

Boros Monarch

Benitos, 5-0

3 Ancient Den
1 Bojuka Bog
4 Boros Garrison
3 Great Furnace
2 Secluded Steppe
2 Snow-Covered Mountain
2 Snow-Covered Plains
4 Wind-Scarred Crag
4 Glint Hawk
4 Kor Skyfisher
3 Palace Sentinels
4 Foundry Inspector
2 Battle Screech
1 Faithless Looting
1 Electrickery
4 Galvanic Blast
4 Lightning Bolt
2 Prismatic Strands
3 Alchemist's Vial
4 Prophetic Prism
3 Journey to Nowhere

Sideboard
2 Electrickery
1 Prismatic Strands
2 Gorilla Shaman
2 Leave No Trace
2 Lone Missionary
3 Pyroblast
2 Relic of Progenitus
1 Standard Bearer

Palace Sentinels strategies could have a functional FT of 4 as well. There are many situations were slamming a Sentinels on the fourth turn is the correct play. More often it is proper to postpone the Palace Sentinels a turn or two so that a removal spell or protective Prismatic Strands can be set up. The result is a deck that wants to take control of the game on turn 4 but usually does not do so until turn 5 or so. The monarch is such a uniquely powerful effect that it forces a change in the way games play out. The best way to become the monarch is to cast your own monarch card, which can lead to protracted battles of trying to resolve the final game breaker. Unlike trump cards in other formats, the monarch is a game piece that does not exist on the battlefield and can only be bounced back and forth—two players cannot hold it at the same time. The nature of the monarch piece makes the deck’s FT hard to pin down as it can vary wildly from matchup to matchup. Still, assigning a rough FT of 5 feels correct.

Ah, midrange.

Tron

Steb, Top 32

1 Mortuary Mire
3 Remote Isle
4 Shimmering Grotto
4 Urza's Mine
4 Urza's Power Plant
4 Urza's Tower
2 Island
2 Dinrova Horror
3 Mnemonic Wall
4 Mulldrifter
3 Sea Gate Oracle
1 Dispel
1 Forbidden Alchemy
2 Ghostly Flicker
3 Impulse
2 Moment's Peace
2 Mystical Teachings
1 Prohibit
2 Pulse of Murasa
4 Expedition Map
4 Prophetic Prism
4 Simic Signet

Sideboard
1 Moment's Peace
1 Ancient Grudge
1 Circle of Protection: Red
1 Electrickery
4 Hydroblast
3 Pyroblast
4 Wretched Gryff

Tron decks are pretty firmly turn 4 decks these days. While the natural Tron on turn 3 is always a possibility these decks start taking over once they are able to cast two spells per turn. While the games may not actually end until a Ghostly Flicker loop is enacted, being able to Mulldrifter and anything else is often good enough to cement any advantage.

The difference between Tron’s FT and when it wins the game is one reason I am not a huge fan of land destruction as a way to fight Tron. While a Choking Sands or Stone Rain might delay the big mana deck it often does so at the cost of an entire turn. A cycle spent not developing your board while giving the Tron deck another draw allows the deck more time to sculpt its end game.

Dimir Delver

Condescend, Top 8

2 Ash Barrens
2 Evolving Wilds
9 Snow-Covered Island
2 Snow-Covered Swamp
3 Terramorphic Expanse
4 Augur of Bolas
4 Delver of Secrets/Insectile Aberration
4 Gurmag Angler
4 Gitaxian Probe
4 Preordain
4 Brainstorm
2 Counterspell
4 Daze
1 Disfigure
3 Echoing Decay
3 Foil
3 Gush
2 Snuff Out

Sideboard
2 Annul
3 Dispel
2 Hydroblast
1 Nausea
2 Relic of Progenitus
1 Shrivel
1 Soul Reap
3 Stormbound Geist

I feel fairly confident in saying Dimir Delver has a FT of 3. Between Ash Barrens, Evolving Wilds, Daze, and all the cantrips it is extremely easy to have a Gurmag Angler on the board by the third turn while also have countermeasures in hand to defend it. While the game is not actually over at this point it requires some fairly specific answers to not be on the defense against the big fish.

And it is not as if taking out the first Gurmag Angler is an answer. Thanks to Gush and Delver of Secrets, not to mention Stormbound Geist out of the sideboard, Dimir Delver is fine assuming a pseudo-control role in the mid-to-late game. The shift in position makes this one of the more dangerous decks in Pauper today.

Why does this all matter? Understanding the Fundamental Turn of any format helps to inform deck building decisions and approaches to the metagame. While Pauper is still centered around the fourth turn of a game, the critical juncture is shifting closer and closer to the start of the game. Both Burn and Dimir Delver can “win” before turn 4, to say nothing of the rare turn 2 Tireless Tribe kill. Even a deck like Bogles can move into the victory formation on turn 3 thanks to Ancestral Mask. The threats in Pauper are so diverse that the failure to run the correct narrow answer for a given matchup can be the difference between a successful league run and one spent spewing play points.

The result is a narrowing of potential playable cards and strategies. While the metagame is still fairly diverse, as the Fundamental Turn gets lower the window for interaction shrinks. This creates an additional pressure on deck construction and can have the unintended result of pushing otherwise powerful cards out of the metagame. One only needs to look at the decline in popularity of Skred since the advent of Dimir Delver. Skred is a fantastic card but is not fast enough to matter in a Gurmag Angler metagame.

Thankfully Modern Horizons is coming. This set, with a higher power level, could provide the tools necessary to realign Pauper’s Fundamental Turn. While the days of Tendrils of Corruption and Spire Golem + Counterspell are in our rear view mirror, I am hopeful that downshifts and new cards could broaden the window for interaction.